I saw this Quartz article—More and more Indian IT engineers are under-skilled, unwanted, and unemployed— earlier today and although it involves a bunch of people I’ll probably never meet, in a country I’ll probably never visit, this piece bothered me on a fundamental level. It reminded me of something that I learned decades ago about an inevitable consequence of economic evolution, a consequence that renders large groups of people irrelevant, invisible, and forgotten.
I first entered college, sometime after the earth cooled, as a student of economics. That changed quickly enough, but not before I had completed several seriously enlightening courses in that discipline. At least some of what I learned from my esteemed professors, for better or worse, has stuck with me to this day. The above-linked article reminded me of this. Let me explain.
Economic evolution/revolution has always opened doors for some and slammed them shut for others. Consider the transitions from agriculture to industry, from industry to service, from service to information, and from information to (smart) automation. That last transition is still unfolding. In fact plenty of people either don’t know about it yet or are in denial—but that’s a topic for another time. My point is this: with every turn of the wheel, opportunities have opened and opportunities have closed. Each and every time, while traditionally understood job opportunities shrunk, new and exciting job opportunities expanded, albeit not always at the same rate. Maybe never at the same rate.
What happens when the only job role you’ve ever known becomes obsolete? On a purely academic level, the answer is simple: people must be retrained.
But even the citizens of academia will readily admit that not everyone can be retrained and funneled into the revised economy. Why? For openers, there will likely be fewer new jobs created than old ones eliminated. Second, who is going to pay for all this retraining? Finally, consider also that some individuals may be too close to retirement to start over—but not close enough to be able to retire.
If you haven’t already done so, please take a few minutes to read the article to which I referred earlier. Check out the prediction that “3.9 million employees of Indian IT services companies would become ‘irrelevant’ within the next four years” due to automation. And don’t overlook the prediction that 65% of the displaced workforce cannot be retrained.
That seems like an awful lot of people to disregard as irrelevant. Irrelevant! We aren’t talking about an obsolete screw that will no longer be used to manufacture a product. We aren’t talking about a line of code in a software program that is no longer needed. These are people! Human beings! When they disappear on paper, when they drop from the statistics, when they are no longer visible in the economic model, what do you imagine happens to them?
I am reminded of a 1993 movie called Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas. There is a scene in which Douglas’ character encounters a man protesting in front of a bank, raving about having become “not economically viable.” During this scene, the raving man is arrested and taken away by law enforcement officers. What is often lost on the audience is the fact that the man carted off by police is dressed identically to the anti-hero of this story.
Of course it doesn’t take an economic revolution to cause this condition. We see the same thing happen on a smaller scale whenever an economic downturn occurs. Or smaller yet when a specific industry falters. Or smaller yet, when this or that company is forced to “downsize” in order to remain viable.
This happens every day. I have witnessed it firsthand, on varying scales, for decades. As an educated man, I am capable of understanding and explaining the whole cause-and-effect episode. As a wordsmith, I can spin things toward a specific desired outcome.
Just remember one thing. No matter how we slice, dice, or spin a given situation, these are human beings we are talking about. Okay?
How would you like to be called irrelevant? I thought so.
I know this post has been a bit of a departure from the things about which I usually write. With that in mind, if you are still reading, thanks all the more for hanging with me.